The Military’s Carbon Footprint Is A Hidden Cost Of Defense

17:01 minutes

Fighter jet silhouettes on background of sunset.
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Between supplying fuel to military bases, planes, and ships, making and using weapons, and clearing land, militaries around the world account for almost 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

A new report calculated how much the militaries of the United States and the United Kingdom would hypothetically “owe” if they paid for the damage caused by their carbon emissions. The total came up to $111 billion. So what can the military do about its emissions? And what does militarism in the context of the climate crisis look like?

Ira talks with two of the report’s authors, Khem Rogaly, a senior researcher at London-based think tank Common Wealth, and Dr. Patrick Bigger, research director at the Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank in the US.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Khem Rogaly

Khem Rogaly is a senior researcher at Common Wealth in London, England.

Patrick Bigger

Dr Patrick Bigger is research director at the Climate and Community Project in Maryland.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Between supplying fuel to military bases, planes, and ships, making and using weapons, and clearing land, militaries around the world account for almost 6% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. A new report calculated how much two prominent militaries, talking about the US and the UK, would hypothetically owe in dollars if they paid for the damage caused by their carbon emissions. The total– $111 billion, a nice chunk of change there.

Joining me are two authors of the report, Khem Rogaly, senior researcher at Commonwealth, a think tank in London, Dr. Patrick Bigger, research director at the Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank. He’s based in Maryland. Welcome to Science Friday.

PATRICK BIGGER: Thank you so much, Ira.

KHEM ROGALY: Thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: Patrick, you focused on the US and the UK militaries. Why choose those two?

PATRICK BIGGER: Well, for one thing, we’re based in the US and UK– and so these are policy decisions that we’re very concerned with– and also the roles historically of the US and UK in really creating and securing the global fossil fuel economy that we’ve been living with over the past century or so that’s the primary driver of greenhouse gas emissions and associated changes to the climate.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I mentioned that $111 billion figure in climate reparations. How did you get that number? Give me some of the math there.

PATRICK BIGGER: Sure. So it’s not a particularly complicated set of math. What we did was look at the self-reported emissions figures from both the US and UK militaries since 2015, which, of course, is the year of the Paris Climate Accord, so a year that there was real international consensus that something serious needs to be done about the climate crisis. And then we looked at a range of figures for what’s called the social cost of carbon or, effectively, the damages that would be caused by each excess ton of carbon emissions. And we landed on what we think is a kind of middle-of-the-road figure, around $250 per ton, and applied that to each ton of emissions that the US and UK militaries self reported. And so that’s how we arrived at this figure of $111 billion since 2015.

IRA FLATOW: Khem, was that surprising to you?

KHEM ROGALY: I don’t think so just because we were aware of the scale of military emissions, both from the UK and the US, with especially the US and the size of its military a particular concern to us. Actually, as Patrick said, the figure is quite middle of the road. And that’s really because the official data on military emissions is so limited. So for the US, we didn’t have access to emissions figures for 2022. And with the UK, we didn’t have 2017 or 2018. So really, we’re working with a limited picture here, and the estimate that we should be coming to, although it is a reasonably large sum of money, it could be more in the grand scheme of things.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Considering the sizes of military budgets these days, that’s not a lot of money, is it?

PATRICK BIGGER: It really isn’t. When we look at US Department of Defense appropriations, this year at around $840 billion, which is annually what the Inflation Reduction Act, which, of course, is the US’s biggest ever climate investment, what the Inflation Reduction Act will spend over the course of a decade. So we’re talking about an order of magnitude more spending annually on the military than on climate action.

IRA FLATOW: And Khem, give me an idea where that money would go. Who would get that money?

KHEM ROGALY: So what we argue is that money should go to internationally governed climate finance funds. That’s something that, through UN processes, is already being negotiated and already happening, although the richer countries that have said that they’ll be pledging up to $100 billion of climate finance each year have been failing to deliver that. And what we’re looking at here is actually a separate internationally governed fund to cater specifically for the effects of military activity because the militaries are such big polluters.

They’re huge sources of emissions. And they’re causing ecological damage in other ways. And that’s not something that’s been accounted for in UN processes so far.

PATRICK BIGGER: There’s a good case to be made that this money should be distributed broadly across the Global South and because we know that these countries in Latin America, and Africa, and in Southeast Asia, especially small island developing states in places like the Caribbean and Pacific, are the most vulnerable to climate change for a couple of reasons. One of which, of course, is just that they lack the financial resources to make investment in climate adaptation as well as in low carbon development to really chart their own path for the 21st century as the climate crisis intensifies.

So there’s this dual problem of higher physical vulnerability with lower financial resources to cope. And so there are researchers at the Overseas Development Institute who calculate what the fair share of international climate finance should be based on the historical emissions of the big polluting countries, like the US and UK. They find that the US to hit its fair share should really be contributing around $44 billion per year in climate finance, which is about four times more than we officially contribute to these processes.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk specifically about those countries. Which countries are you talking about?

PATRICK BIGGER: Sure. There’s a very good case that this money should be primarily directed to the poorest countries that are already suffering the impacts of the climate crisis the most while contributing the least. Richer countries, like those in Latin America, often have access to international financial markets on which they can borrow to undertake climate action whereas the poorest countries are really dependent or really rely on public climate finance from both the US and UK directly as well as from international financial institutions, like the World Bank and IMF. But the big part of this is that we think that this money should be distributed as grants rather than as loans in order to not add to the financial burdens of countries already grappling with the impacts of the climate crisis.

IRA FLATOW: And one of the tenets of the COP28 is the Loss and Damage fund. Is that what you’re talking about?

KHEM ROGALY: No. We’re actually talking about is an additional separate fund, not for loss and damages to be paid for emissions in, say, the UK and US as a whole but actually to direct the account for the operations of militaries. And one of the reasons that we think that this is a really important area for international climate finance is because militaries are under the control of each government. So these are public sector emissions.

In the UK, it’s around 50% of public sector emissions come from the military. Using official figures in the US, it’s around 80%. So it’s a really, really high amount of public sector emissions. And that’s something that governments are directly responsible for. And we argue that they have a commensurate responsibility to pay international climate finance to those countries that are most affected by the climate crisis but least responsible.

IRA FLATOW: If the US and UK militaries actually wanted to reduce their carbon footprint, what’s the roadmap? How would they do that, Khem?

KHEM ROGALY: So what we found in our research is that both the US and the UK militaries are trying to position themselves now as solutions to the climate crisis rather than contributors to the climate crisis. So what they’ve both been saying in their policy documents is that, on the one hand, they want to preserve global security that they see as being affected by the climate crisis. But also they think that they can decarbonize their existing operations.

Now, if you look into the figures, just the official emissions data that we have available– and that is limited– what you see is that the most prominent sources of emissions are energy use. And what is energy use in a military context? We’re talking about fighter jets and warships.

Now, fighter jets, to take one example, are not a piece of technology that has a viable decarbonization pathway at the moment. There isn’t a zero emissions fuel option that fighter jets can take on board. And moreover, they’re a very expensive piece of technology. The F-35 program is costing the US government $1.7 trillion over its lifetime. So it’s very difficult to replace them.

So really, what we found is that you can’t just decarbonize existing military operations. But rather, you have to reduce them in size. And you have to close the overseas networks of bases that both the US and the UK have.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Hasn’t the Pentagon, the US Pentagon, already said that climate change is an existential threat to the US, specifically the Navy? They have all these bases, San Diego, Norfolk, right there on the water. And you may have rising oceans. They seem to believe that, don’t they?

PATRICK BIGGER: They absolutely do. I think you could make a very strong case that the Department of Defense has taken climate change as seriously, if not more seriously, than just about any other federal agency because they realize that the material impacts of climate change will have serious knock-on effects for their day-to-day operations as well as what sorts of conflicts we see in the 21st century.

The way that they speak about it is that climate change is a threat multiplier and that it won’t necessarily produce new conflicts. But it will intensify conflicts and increase their impacts. So they have taken climate change very seriously. But we don’t think that it’s gone anywhere near far enough.

IRA FLATOW: So they recognize the threat, but they’re not moving fast enough is what I hear you saying.

PATRICK BIGGER: That’s for a number of reasons, as Khem discussed, especially around the use of aviation fuel, which is far and away the largest component of US military emissions. It’s just very hard to see a pathway towards meaningful emissions reductions. And so while the military can invest in things like seawalls at [? Norfolk ?] at Hampton Roads or in base electrification at bases across the country, that doesn’t really get at the heart of the problem.

IRA FLATOW: Back in 2009, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus launched a program for the Navy called the Green Fleet. Are you familiar with that, trying to use renewable fuels for its ships?

PATRICK BIGGER: Oh, I’m absolutely familiar with that. A colleague and I wrote a paper on precisely this program back in 2017. That was really my introduction to the problem of US military greenhouse gas emissions and, in fact, is why we looked in to start quantifying those emissions in the first place because there wasn’t a good figure out there.

And so this is one of the very interesting things about the US military is that, historically, it’s been the one area through which the US government really intervenes in the economy and in making investments in research and development of things like alternative fuels. And so they’ve been trying to crack this nut for 15 years in terms of coming up with sustainable aviation fuels alternatives. And unfortunately, there’s just not the scale or volume of these fuels available to make much of a dent any time in the near-term future, nor is it entirely clear when those would become economically viable or cost competitive with existing fuels.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s really a political decision–


IRA FLATOW: –to expand it so that it’s meaningful. Yeah.

PATRICK BIGGER: Absolutely, which is the case with– we understand the science of climate change very well. We understand what the impacts will be to a large extent. And now it’s really up to political process to determine what ought to be done and how quickly we can achieve emissions reductions to avert the worst impacts of global warming.

IRA FLATOW: Patrick, you guys have put a number on the figure here. Is there any initiatives on that front to hold militaries accountable, Patrick?

PATRICK BIGGER: Well, that is precisely the conversation that we are trying to start. And I think reasonable people can certainly debate what the correct number is. But just by having a conversation about what the number is, I think maybe we start to have a conversation about how we could get it done.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And Khem, your report says that if we do cut back on the military, we’re going to have to find jobs for all those folks put out of work. Where would they go away?

KHEM ROGALY: Well, exactly. And I think what we see there is that we can really learn from the trade union movement in both the US and in the UK because what trade unions have shown us from the 1970s onwards is that, actually, jobs existing within the military industry at the moment can be converted into new industries. And even in the ’70s in the UK, they were proposing at Lucas Aerospace, a defense firm– workers were proposing to make heat pumps, which now is seen as a very modern green technology.

So I think what’s really important to think about here is that, when we’d be rolling back military operations, we’d also be having to think about what we do with the military industry. In the US, about $400 billion a year are spent on defense contractors. In the UK, it’s a much smaller figure but still significant for the UK, of 30 pounds billion a year spent on equipment for the Ministry of Defense. And if you’re cutting back the size of your military, then you really have to have an active strategy and an active plan to convert some of that industrial capacity that exists within the military industry to new green jobs. And that can even be done using the same plants.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking about military climate reparations, how the US and UK militaries would hypothetically owe more than $110 billion if they were going to pay for the damage caused by their carbon emissions. I’m here with the two authors on that report, Khem Rogaly, senior researcher at Commonwealth, a think tank in London, Dr. Patrick Bigger, research director at another think tank, the Climate and Community Project.

In this era of climate crisis, I already mentioned how the Pentagon views this as an existential threat and a military threat to the United States. This really is a national security issue but thought about differently, is it not, Patrick?

PATRICK BIGGER: It is. And I think as the climate crisis intensifies, part of what we are hoping that this contributes to is a broader conversation about what is important to achieve security as the climate changes around us, and security for whom, and how we finance the investments that we need to ensure not just security.

But the form of reparations that we think about comes from my collaborator, Dr. Olúfémi Táíwo at Georgetown University, who says that reparations should be worldmaking, that is they should make different kinds of worlds thinkable and possible. And so by diverting some amount of money from what would otherwise go to fuel for F-35 training flights or something like this, maybe nonessential military uses, then how can we think about how world’s– especially for people who are particularly vulnerable in the Global South, how they become more secure in a highly uncertain future.

IRA FLATOW: The idea about cutting back on the military echoes back 60 years to when President Eisenhower on his last days in office in 1961, he warned Americans about the increasing power of the military industrial complex, which is a phrase that came into our vocabulary. And he even said– he even warned ecologically. He said, as we peer into society’s future, we, you, and I, and our government must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow, an irony that Ike, who was a military commander of the Allied forces in World War II, a man who is connected to the military industrial complex, would warn us. And it seems like that still echoing today, 60 years later.

PATRICK BIGGER: Incredibly prescient, is it not? And yet it also demonstrates a real problem that I think applies to various dimensions of the climate crisis, that we’ve known that this is going to be a problem for a long, long time and not taken appropriate action to mitigate our emissions or make the investments in adaptation for the warming we’re already locked into. And so maybe we can think back to Ike’s warning, and see what happened when we didn’t heed it, and maybe make some changes about how we respond to those threats that we’ve already identified.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today.

KHEM ROGALY: Thanks so much for having us.

PATRICK BIGGER: Thank you so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Khem Rogaly, senior researcher at Commonwealth, a think tank in London, and Dr. Patrick Bigger, research director at the Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank. He’s based in Maryland.

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